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How a Hurricane Kills

September 13, 2018, 8:45 PM UTC

Hurricane season is upon us again, as the sobering flurry of news about Hurricane Florence and the ensuing evacuations in the Carolinas reminds us. As of 3 PM EST Thursday, the National Weather Service (NWS) warns that “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall” is expected as “winds and rough surf continue to increase along the outer banks and coastal southeastern North Carolina.” If you’re anywhere near the affected regions or have loved ones in the deadly Category 2 storm’s path, make sure to keep track of what government and other storm trackers are advising.

With recent official reports finding that last year’s Hurricane Maria claimed nearly 3,000 lives in Puerto Rico—an assertion that re-emerged onto the national spotlight Thursday after President Donald Trump, without providing evidence, alleged that those estimates were artificially inflated and politically motivated—it’s worth exploring what it is that ultimately kills people, including the most vulnerable, when a hurricane strikes.

It’s incredibly hard to pin down a storm’s precise death toll because of the myriad, chaotic factors that accompany a natural disaster. On an island like Puerto Rico, which has limited health care and other types of infrastructure, a hurricane’s downstream effects can prove even more devastating than the initial surge. Low-income residents and the elderly face disproportionate consequences from lack of food and water, loss of electricity, and other elements indirectly and directly attributable to a hurricane. That’s on top of the flooding, flying debris, and the other immediate storm-related events that can claim countless lives.

But, more generally, the proximate causes of hurricane-related injury and death may be surprising, according to the National Hurricane Center. Whenever a hurricane tumbles toward landfall, the emphasis tends to be on wind forces. That makes sense since the category of a storm is generally determined by its maximum sustained winds; but, researchers have found, the vast majority of deaths (nearly 90%) from hurricanes, tropical storms, or tropical depressions between 1963 and 2012 were attributable to “storm surge, rainfall flooding, high surf, and deaths just offshore.” This implies that water, even more so than wind, is the most dangerous element of a major storm.

Of course, these various components blend together to cause maximum, and long-standing, devastation—which is what makes prudent pre-storm measures, and sustained post-storm aid, so critical to preserving human life.

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